Designed by Michael Hurdzan with Dana Fry and constructed by Landscapes Unlimited, the Shelter Harbor course between Westerly and Charlestown was the first private layout to open in Washington County, Rhode Island for more than a hundred years when it was unveiled in 2005.
The clubhouse is set within a 400-acre property on one of the highest promontories in Rhode Island and it offers wonderful views over the 18-hole layout, the adjoining 9-hole par three course and the nearby waters of Block Island Sound.Characterised by rough-edged, bearded bunkers, many of which were built by Coore & Crenshaw collaborator, Jeff Bradley, the course also features a number of small stone dykes that appear with regularity throughout the round.
Shelter Harbor by Dana Fry and Michael Hurzdan is a gem. I have heard the comment from many that once it receives more outside play that it will likely become a top 100 golf course by the major magazines. I think it falls slightly short of that but is easily within the top 200.
It is a golf course that reminds one of Old Sandwich (Coore & Crenshaw) or Boston Golf Club (Gil Hanse) in its topography and utilization of natural features. It produces a feeling of solitude given its massive location of 400 acres through a fair number of trees and several ponds.
It starts with a bang, a downhill long par five with a bunker that has to be navigated to find the best route into the green.
The fairways are fairly wide throughout, a common feature to current architects, with a lot of "eye candy" with the bunkers and rocks.
The first two holes are gentle, but the third is a long par four to a well defended green with bunkers right which is the line most players would take into the hole.
The fourth is famous for its biarritz like green. It is a long par four but I thought the green was overly done and mainly unfair. I have played better green complexes than on this long par 3.
The next three holes I found to be only average although scenic. Some like the seventh with its fairway bunker and well defended green but I found it to be a bit too much and that was after a routine par. I liked the green complex but I did not like the way into the hole.
The eighth and ninth are strong uphill holes, a par four and par five. The ninth has a green tucked on a ridge into a dell like setting. I thought it was the best hole on the front.
The tenth is a long downhill par four again with very wide fairways. I liked the view the most here and thought it was the second best hole on the golf course.
This is followed by some fairly straightforward holes, the eleventh-twelfth. They were extremely fun to play as a par three and par five.
The thirteenth is a short par four with another wide fairway, dogleg left followed by a long par four and a long par three. All of them have very good greens, rolling and undulating.
The sixteenth is a shorter par five with a pond down the left. I felt the hole was a bit too easy.
It is a nice finish with a par three over the water and a terrific green. It is a very beautiful hole. This is followed by the best hole on the golf course, a longer par four where you have to carry the wetlands to an uphill well defended and tilted green perched below the clubhouse.
Overall, Shelter Harbor is a wonderful golf experience due to the beauty of the golf course and the challenges it presents with the approach shots and on the greens. The fairways are perhaps a bit too wide at time but that is good for a game of "joy" but not necessarily always a challenge. I did not find there to be more than a couple of outstanding holes, and I thought some of the hole's greens were overly done. I enjoyed The Misquamicut Club more for the experience, but I think this is the best golf course in Rhode Island.
Among the many outstanding features at Shelter Harbor, two stand out: bunkers and rocks. While the number is not excessive, the bunker locations Mike Hurdzan and Dana Fry have found add interesting challenges. The second shot on the opening par 5 puts the player’s mind to work right away as (s)he decides how to avoid a gaping bunker. There’s another at the par 5 11th, but my favorite is the short par 4 7th. Here Hurdzan and Fray placed a pair in the middle of the fairway that are quite visible from the tee. But the best is yet to come as just over the rise and past that first pair is a third bunker—completely invisible from the tee. It’s as if the 12th at the Old Course had been transplanted to Rhode Island. The clever bunkering continues greenside as well.
Running game options abound (only 2 holes require the aerial variety) though there are still bunkers (notably at the 1st and 16th) that threaten the approach. In addition to being challenging, the bunkers are also beautiful—the work of Jeff Bradley, who built the bunkers at such Coore and Crenshaw courses as Friar’s Head, Bandon Trails and Cuscowilla.
Stone walls also abound, most constructed from the rocks pulled from the New England soil that drove so many farmers to the more fertile Midwest. While ubiquitous, the walls rarely come into play. In some cases, Hurdzan and Fry left some boulders on the course, the most prominent of which threatens the second shot on the par 5 9th.
The course is usually in great conditioning, with the greens running 11 on my stimpmeter even during a recent early May round. There are plenty of wetlands, but few forced carries—though at 13 and, to a lesser degree 18, you should pick your tee box carefully. Most tee shots are confronted by wide fairways, but there is usually a better side of the fairway to be on.
For its size, Rhode Island has as many fine courses as any state. Shelter Harbor is my Ocean State favorite and among my half dozen favorites in New England.